Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Ken Hughes
Stars: Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell, Roy Kinnear
Released 14th November 2016
In 1958, Ken Hughes’ half hour play, ‘Sammy’ appeared on British television. It attracted huge acclaim and turned its solidary actor, Anthony Newley, into a star. Several years later, he returned to the same part, this time in the much-expanded ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’, written and directed by Hughes and released in cinemas in 1963. The response wasn’t so warm.
Now described by some as a lost gem of British cinema, it returned to the big screen in a newly restored version at the London Film Festival and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Time for a re-assessment.
The Sammy Lee of the title (Newley) is the compere at a Soho strip joint and a fast talking chancer. He’s also up to his neck in debt with the local bookie and has just five hours to raise the cash that will prevent paying up in a more painful way. It’s a race against the clock for him to find the money, through all manner of dodgy deals. At the same time, he has to cope with a major complication in his life, the young Patsy (Julia Foster) who fell for his showy offer of a job and has left home to pursue him.
Right from the opening shot, this is a period piece and a large chunk of nostalgia for anybody familiar with the London of the 60s, Soho especially. The early moments show streets that are empty, except for the bin men collecting the remains of the night before. Them aside, there’s hardly anybody around, but all that changes as the day progresses. You find yourself picking out street names and locations – Berwick Street market for one – while the black and white photography introduces the inherent seediness of the area, such as the strip club interior both back stage and front of house, the snooker halls, the pokey bed-sits. It extends to the characters as well, from Sammy with his stock of hackneyed, vaguely smutty gags straight out of the Archie Rice joke book to the pathetic Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) who runs his errands and, inevitably, falls down on the job.
All of which makes the more law-abiding characters stand out. There’s a one-scene portrait of Sammy’s family, his hard working brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a Whitechapel delicatessen and wife Milly (Miriam Karlin), dripping in costume jewellery and lacking any sympathy for Sammy when he arrives on the scrounge. So much so, that you suspect there may have been something between the two before she settled for his brother. And there’s the naïve Patsy who sees him for what he is but still adores him and finds promotion from waitress to “dancer” in the club upsetting and humiliating.
The scenes in the club give away the film’s 30 minute original, there’s one too many scene of Sammy running through the Soho streets and the Patsy love interest feels like padding, but why should a film with so much in the way of character and location fall so flat when it was released? One reason could be timing. It didn’t fit with the move towards “kitchen sink dramas” – it came out in the same year as ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ and ‘This Sporting Life’, while ‘A Kind Of Loving’ had been released in 1962. Sammy’s story isn’t a thriller either and doesn’t make the most of the dramatic potential of his limited time for raising that money. Nor is it a comment on society.
But, despite its shortcomings, there is much to enjoy, particularly among the performances. Newley is suitably nervy to the point of hyper as Sammy, while the oil positively drips off Robert Stephens’ club owner. And it’s littered with cameos from other familiar faces, like Derek Nimmo, Roy Kinnear and even Linda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel from ‘Open All Hours’). The street scenes in Soho are so evocative you can almost smell the garbage and the club interior is always viewed through a fug of cigarette smoke.
It adds up to a film rich in curiosity value for today’s audience, something of a love letter to the Soho of the 60s, but one that misses the dramatic target by a whisker. Second time round, it seems destined to appeal to a limited audience all over again, one that treasures older, unsung British films.